Sunday, November 18, 2018

Messages—a sermon on Isaiah 36-37

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Isaiah 36.13-20, 37.1-7, 2.1-4
18 November 2018, NL1-11

Last week we heard from the prophet Micah, who lived in the countryside in the late 8th century BCE. Today we will hear from the prophet Isaiah, who lived at the same time, but in the city of Jerusalem.
The year is 701 BCE. For the past 20 years, the Assyrian empire has been growing, as they have taken over the many small nations around the areas that are now Iraq, Syria, Israel/Palestine, and Jordan. The northern kingdom of Israel, the ten tribes that settled north of Jerusalem, had already been swallowed up, and the people, like those of other kingdoms, had been scattered around the empire, re-located so they couldn’t gather themselves to rebel.
Everyone in Jerusalem knew what had happened to their neighbours. At the start of today’s story, the Assyrian army has the city surrounded and under siege. King Hezekiah was a faithful king, one of the few success stories to be found in the annals of the Kings of Israel and Judah. He sent his administrator, his secretary, and his recorder out to meet the general who commanded the Assyrian army, at the aqueduct that ran alongside the road toward the field where launderers worked. They asked the General to speak to them in Aramaic, which was the language of official documents and diplomatic business at the time, but was not usually understood by the average person in Jerusalem, who spoke only Hebrew.
We pick up the story of their meeting, just outside the city walls, in the book of the prophet Isaiah, chapter 36, beginning at verse 13, then continuing into chapter 37, and then ending with the prophetic poem that is now placed at chapter 2 in our English bibles. I will be reading from the Common English Bible translation, which will also be on the screen. 

Then the field commander stood up and shouted in Hebrew at the top of his voice: “Listen to the message of the great king, Assyria’s king. The king says this: Don’t let Hezekiah lie to you. He won’t be able to rescue you. Don’t let Hezekiah persuade you to trust the Lord by saying, ‘The Lord will certainly rescue us. This city won’t be handed over to Assyria’s king.’
“Don’t listen to Hezekiah, because this is what Assyria’s king says: Surrender to me and come out. Then each of you will eat from your own vine and fig tree and drink water from your own well until I come to take you to a land just like your land. It will be a land of grain and new wine, a land of bread and vineyards. Don’t let Hezekiah fool you by saying, ‘The Lord will rescue us.’ Did any of the other gods of the nations save their lands from the power of Assyria’s king? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim? Did they rescue Samaria from my power? Which one of the gods from those countries has rescued their land from my power? Will the Lord save Jerusalem from my power?”
When King Hezekiah heard this, he ripped his clothes, covered himself with mourning clothes, and went to the Lord’s temple. He sent Eliakim the palace administrator, Shebna the secretary, and the senior priests to the prophet Isaiah, Amoz’s son. They were all wearing mourning clothes. They said to him, “Hezekiah says this: Today is a day of distress, punishment, and humiliation. It’s as if children are ready to be born, but there’s no strength to see it through. Perhaps the Lord your God heard all the words of the field commander who was sent by his master, Assyria’s king. He insulted the living God! Perhaps he will punish him for the words that the Lord your God has heard. Offer up a prayer for those few people who still survive.”
When King Hezekiah’s servants got to Isaiah, Isaiah said to them, “Say this to your master: The Lord says this: Don’t be afraid at the words you heard, which the officers of Assyria’s king have used to insult me. I’m about to mislead him, so when he hears a rumour, he’ll go back to his own country. Then I’ll have him cut down by the sword in his own land.”
This is what Isaiah, Amoz’s son, saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
In the days to come
    the mountain of the Lord’s house
    will be the highest of the mountains.
    It will be lifted above the hills;
        peoples will stream to it.
Many nations will go and say,
“Come, let’s go up to the Lord’s mountain,
    to the house of Jacob’s God
        so that he may teach us his ways
        and we may walk in God’s paths.”
Instruction will come from Zion;
    the Lord’s word from Jerusalem.
God will judge between the nations,
    and settle disputes of mighty nations.
Then they will beat their swords into iron plows
    and their spears into pruning tools.
Nation will not take up sword against nation;
    they will no longer learn how to make war.
Come, house of Jacob,
    let’s walk by the Lord’s light.


There are a lot of voices competing for our attention. On any given day, we are surrounded by messages that are designed to make us feel something: fear, anger, desire. This time of year is particularly full of these messages, as new Christmas advertising campaigns meant to tug at our heartstrings and make us want their products are added to the constant hubbub of headlines and memes and viral videos.

And sometimes, those messages contain kernels of truth. Yes, sometimes a gift is more than just a gift, it’s as life-changing as Elton John’s first piano. And yes, it’s good to avoid the use of palm oil, and not just for cute orangutans. 

Other times, those messages are just repeats of lies, but with the liar hoping that if it’s said enough times, we’ll start to believe it. (I feel confident we can all think of examples without me naming any!)

That day in Jerusalem, the people heard a message that was meant to instil fear. The message was shouted out in their language, rather than in the official diplomatic language, so they could all hear it and understand, and it contained a kernel of truth: the gods of other nations had not been able to rescue those people from the Assyrian army’s destruction and redistribution of the population. 

Around that very tiny kernel, he wrapped a very seductive message, one that still resonates for many today: “do as I say, and you will eat from your own vine and fig tree, and drink water from your own well.” I think the commander of the army probably whispered the next bit, because it’s like the terms and conditions at the end of an advert: “until I come and take you away to another land.” 

If you just come quietly, abandon your god and your community, then you can be self-sufficient. You can take care of yourself. You first, and you can be great on your own. Don’t worry about what God has taught you, or about the other people around you. God can’t save you, and those other people can fend for themselves too.

The message had at least part of its desired effect: the people were afraid. And isn’t that what so many of the messages around us all the time want us to be? Afraid. It’s certainly the root of most of the politics and economic policy of our time. We are meant to be afraid of our neighbours. Afraid of people fleeing war or famine or disease, looking for safety or prosperity. Afraid of people who are poor, or immigrants, or of different religions or have different accents or skin colours. Afraid that people will use up resources and there won’t be enough for us. Every headline leads us down this path: be very afraid, and then resent those you fear.

The people then did what we all ought to do when we hear messages of fear or hate: they then sought God’s word on the matter, not to confirm their own feelings or biases, but to hear what God would have them do. And the first thing God said was “don’t be afraid.” When we hear those other messages, we need to be reminded that God hears, and provides, and loves. God is trustworthy and faithful. God’s vision and plans cannot be thwarted by the lies shouted at us, no matter how seductive they sound, no matter that they’re in our native tongue or that they play on our fears and desires. Take comfort, and do not be afraid.

Whatever we are hearing from advertising, or politicians, or journalists, or films, or wherever else, and whatever tiny kernels of truth they might build on to create fear or anger or greed, this story reminds us to seek out the one message that matters: God’s. It can be hard to hear in the midst of the din of the world. It takes practice to pick out God’s voice through all the hubbub—that practice will involve reading scripture for ourselves, so we recognise God’s word when we hear it; it will involve prayer time that includes both speaking and listening; it will involve seeking God with all our senses, and serving God’s people wherever we see them in need, and building a community together than can withstand the onslaught of messages tempting us to individualism and self-sufficiency, choosing instead to truly know one another and to share both the burdens and the joys of life. 

The king and the people of Jerusalem looked for God’s word to them in the middle of the many other messages around—and they found it, and it helped them to live faithfully through the crisis. Whether we are in a crisis or just in the everyday chaos, the same is true for us.

As the prophet’s poem said at the end of the reading: the Lord will teach us his ways, the word of the Lord will go out to all the earth. And this is what it will look like when we focus on that message instead of all the others:
We will turn our weapons of war into tools of cultivation. We will turn from fighting each other to feeding each other. Rather than training for war, we will live together, training others up in the way of love. Our lives will be the opposite of individualism and self-reliance and greed and fear. 

This is a message that is easily drowned out. Swords and spears and their modern equivalents make much more noise...and they are more profitable, too. Shifting not just our mindset but our economy from fighting to feeding will always feel impossible, as long as we allow the other messages of scarcity and fear and greed to speak the loudest. 

But this is what we are baptised into. This community that God has called together is created for a purpose: to amplify the message of love, grace, peace, hope, and justice; the message of enough for all; the message of a different way of life than that offered by politicians and economists and celebrities. The Assyrian general had a very loud voice. Politics and Money and Fear and Desire have loud voices. God’s voice may not thunder out over the airwaves, it may not have a clever ad campaign, but it can be heard, if we learn to listen...and it can be taught—indeed, it must be taught...and we can be the ones who bear the good news in every conversation, every action, every decision, every prayer. Come, let us walk by the Lord’s light.

May it be so. Amen.

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